Just days before Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, Wellcome Collection travelled to India for our most far-flung event yet, to meet a man who has a rocket to put the Diwali fireworks to shame. Kicking off the fifth series of Exchanges at the Frontier in spectacular style, we journeyed to Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, along with our partners from the BBC World Service. We were there to meet Professor Jitendra Nath Goswami of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), part of the Indian Space Research Organisation, in the run up to the launch of India’s first ever mission to Mars.
Professor Goswami is a leading planetary scientist and was the hero of India’s successful mission to the Moon in 2008, in which their probe Chadrayaan found evidence of water when NASA had said there was none. Now he is embarking on India’s most ambitious space adventure yet, sending the Mars Orbiter on a 300-day, 780-million-km journey to the Red Planet in search of signs of life. We wanted to find out more about the science behind the mission and the rationale for spending $50 million on space research in a country that has such profound poverty.
Ahmedabad is two cities in one – divided by a wide river, the old town is a rabbit warren of narrow streets (called ‘pols’) containing Jain temples, mosques and houses more than two centuries old decorated with intricately beautiful wooden carvings. Across the river the new town boasts an impressive skyline of high-rise buildings (including some designed by the renowned architect Le Corbusier) and most of the best restaurants (where you can enjoy an all-you-can-eat thali for under £2).
On the streets of Ahmedabad, we had to dodge a constant stream of auto-rickshaws, ancient city buses, temple elephants and camels pulling wooden carts laden with fruit, against a soundtrack of cacophonous car horns. But inside PRL – once we had made it past the high metal gates and armed security guards – we found an oasis of calm, a campus of concrete buildings among leafy trees, birds and peacocks.
Professor Goswami and his colleague Dr Bhushit Vaishnav gave us a warm welcome and pulled out all the stops to ensure a large and lively audience for the event. After a snack of samosas and Indian sweets on the lawn, the 250-strong audience of local schoolchildren, members of the public and PRL researchers packed the auditorium to hear Professor Goswami talk to the BBC’s Justin Rowlatt about the importance of the Mars mission for Indian’s scientific status and national pride. It was perhaps the liveliest audience we’ve ever seen for Exchanges at the Frontier, given to bursting into spontaneous applause and laughter, and eagerly asking questions of our speaker on topics ranging from the technical challenges of the mission to the likelihood of finding aliens on Mars. Given that the subject is of such significance and interest to Indian people, it felt entirely appropriate to be holding the event on home turf, where the garrulous enthusiasm for science and support for India’s ambitious space programme created a brilliant atmosphere in the room. During the event Goswami spoke not just about the scientific details of the mission, but about his own early experiences as a budding scientist. He reminisced about his first encounter with space – lying on the grass as a child in his home state of Assam, looking out for Sputnik as it passed overhead. It seems likely that for some of the young people in the audience, India’s Mars mission may prove to be a similarly inspirational first step in their own scientific careers.
You can listen to the programme on the BBC World Service website.
For information on upcoming events and to book, visit the Wellcome Collection website.